Thursday, October 13, 2016
Rabbi David Baum, Kol Nidre 5777/2016
I would like to ask you all to do one thing – it’s easy, it won’t take more than a minute, but it’s also a really difficult thing. But, please, if you will do this one thing for me, it will make me so happy: will you please turn off your phones? I don’t mean put them on silent, I mean actually turn them off.
Thank you. Now, here’s my next request, it’s also really difficult – who in here wants to admit that they pretended to turn off their phones?
I thought so. Why is it so difficult for us to disconnect – maybe, it is because we are afflicted with a terrible disease - #FOMO.
#FOMO has been a terrible condition for years now. #FOMO is an acronym for the condition: Fear Of Missing Out. Here is how it strikes - you are doing something like playing with your children or grandchildren, or maybe, I don’t know, sitting in shul, and your mind starts to wander. Suddenly, you are thinking about five different things that you could be doing right at this moment. Maybe it’s going water skiing, or going to the beach, or a sports game, or surfing the internet; maybe its thinking, ‘I wonder what my friend is doing right now?’
And a fear grips you - a fear that you might be missing out on something better. This is when the disease takes its toll - you start pulling back, disengaging. Maybe you pick up your phone and start checking messages. And that beautiful experience that you were having is now ruined. You aren’t there anymore, you are someplace else. It’s a much bigger problem than we think, because not only does it affect us, it affects the people around us.
In the social media age, we are constantly being tested to move on to the next subject, the next experience. We are never happy just LIVING PRESENT.
And that’s what I want to talk about today - the concept of Living Present. And I talk about this today of all days because we have just began the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. The Torah calls Yom Kippur Shabbat Shabbatton - the Shabbats of all Shabbats. Shabbat, a weekly event that Jews have observed since our very beginnings, is a time to stop creating. On this day, we are forbidden from moving on - we are forced to think about the here and now - what we are experiencing. But it’s not just Shabbat - Judaism compels us to do this everyday - to realize that creation is a daily occurrence and to take note of it - we are constantly being created. Yom Kippur is a time when we embrace that creation is happening all around us, and in us, and we must take note of it, we must bask in its greatness, we must cede to this moment - we must Live Present.
As Jews, we are constantly being pulled - As a whole, we honor the past really well. We observe holidays that bring up historical events. On Passover, we put ourselves in our ancestors’ sandles as they left Egypt. On Sukkot, we dwell in booths just like our ancestors did. On Shavuot, we receive Torah once again and put ourselves in their sandles at Sinai. As far as living for the future, we do that really well.
I will never forget walking my son into his Jewish pre-school and seeing the words written on the floor - From Zale to Yale. It’s pre-school and I’m already thinking about Ivy League tuition!
In the Shema, we are commanded to teach our children - to constantly think about the next generation. And we need that - we need to honor the past, we need to secure the future, but if we don’t truly Live Present, than we cannot do either of the other two successfully.
We must live present for ourselves
We must live present for our families
You might be asking, why is today of all the days the day when we must start living present for ourselves?
On Yom Kippur, there’s a very special ritual that we read about tomorrow during the Avodah service. Every year, the High Priest would enter the Kodesh HaKodashim, the Holy of Holies. In that tiny room, where only one person was allowed only once a year, his fate and the fate of his people were in his hands. If he didn’t focus on the moment, all could be lost, he could even lose his own life. The entire people waited with anticipation and fear as he went through the intricate rituals….
The high priest truly lived in that moment – he lived present- and he taught the whole people something - you have to find your own kodesh hakodashim, if not every day, if not every week, at least once a year, to live in that moment. On Yom Kippur, the high priest literally confronted his death, and walked away. On this holiday, the Shabbats of Shabbats, all of us confront our own end. We wear a kittel, the garment we will wear when we are buried. Today, we abstain from all earthly pleasures.
Can you imagine how the high priest must have felt everyday after that day, after Yom Kippur, after he stared death in the face and then survived?
You don’t have to imagine how he felt though – we all experienced it this week. The day before the storm hit, my father sent me a picture of his front door with enormous accordion shutters for his front door. He called me and said, did you see the picture of my front door? I said yeah, what’s the big deal? He said, this year, we won’t have to hold the door during the storm. And then, I remembered. It was Hurricane Wilma, in 2005. We had lived through hurricanes before, and we didn’t think this one was going to be a big deal. We had been all shuttered up – except for the front door. The winds were worse than we thought. They were so bad that the front door was shaking violently. And so he and I held that door all night. There was a lot of damage – but thankfully the doors held – we were saved. Thankfully, Matthew didn’t do the damage that was expected – but nevertheless, we stared a massive storm in the face – and this shouldn’t be lost on us.
Hurricanes are natural disasters that we cannot control. They are formed in mystery, and they come to our shores. Sometimes they come fast, sometimes slow – sometimes big, sometimes small. Some of us have bigger homes to protect us, some are absolutely exposed; but we are all vulnerable. Not everyone in the world experiences hurricanes like we do, but there are other hurricanes in life, the uncontrollable things that form seemingly out of nowhere and tear our lives apart.
Talk to anyone who has survived the hurricane of cancer. I read about it from Dr. Cheryl Greenberger, the Director of Clinical & Family Services for Chai Lifeline. Chai Lifeline is a Jewish organization that helps seriously ill children and their families live as normal as they possibly can – bringing them joy, hope, and support. Cheryl said the following about cancer survivors:
“On one hand, they live with a daily fear that cancer will return or that their futures are now uncertain. On the other hand, many find that cancer has made them appreciate life in both its grand concept and everyday normality all the more. Many survivors express their gratitude for “the little things.” One survivor told me, ‘I never thought about the feel of wet hair on my neck following a shower. However, while undergoing treatments it was one of the feelings I missed most. Now that I have completed treatment and my hair has grown back, I try and pay attention to that feeling every time I take a shower.’
Can you imagine paying that much attention every time you take a shower? How many times are you taking a shower but you are really somewhere else. You might be starting the day in the morning, but you are really in the office, or at carpool, thinking about the next experience, the next task.
Survivors often say they ‘try’ to pay attention to the feeling of the moment. It is even difficult for survivors - they have to try to pay attention - it’s a conscious act.
But paying attention, living present in that moment, will make you happier.
Psychologist Matthew A. Killingsworth, a lead author of a Harvard study on living in the moment wrote:
“Human beings have this unique ability to focus on other things that aren’t happening right now. That allows them to reflect on the past and learn from it; it allows them to anticipate and plan for the future; and it allows them to imagine things that might never occur. At the same time, it seems that human beings often use this ability in ways that are not productive and furthermore can be destructive to our happiness.”
We are a country obsessed with finding happiness, and we are also the most highly medicated country in the world. We think happiness can be found in a pill bottle, but studies show that happiness can be found by living present.
My friends, I want to you to be happier this year, because a happy congregation makes a happy rabbi. So, if you can do something for me this year, every morning, I want you to pray. I know, you don’t have the time, and the siddur is long, and you can’t make it to minyan, I get it. But, you can start with just saying the following, a line that is found in our morning prayers:
מָה רַבּוּ מַעֲשיךָ ה'. כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשיתָ. מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ קִנְיָנֶךָ:
Mah Rabu Ma’asech Adonai, Kulam B’Chochma Asitah, Mal’ah Ha’Aretz Kinyanecha
How great are your works Adonai, with wisdom You fashioned them all. The earth abounds with Your creations.
Living present in the world means living in radical amazement, a term coined by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He famously said that “our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
Look around. Try and find something beautiful around you and be amazed. Noticing small things can make even an ordinary routine day a little more beautiful and brighter. Be thankful for these little things. For those moments, don’t dwell on what you don’t have, what you are lacking - dwell on what you have, why you are a great creation just like everything around you.
So some of you might be sold on the idea of today being all about living present for ourselves, but it's not just about you.
Can you imagine if you lived in the moment, if you lived present even more for the people you love?
There’s a ritual that, thankfully, many of you in the room have not been a part of: the Vidui at the death bed. I used to perform this ritual alone with the person about to transition to Olam HaBah, but then I started asking families to stand with me in the room, in the moment.
We all join hands - I ask the loved ones - talk to your loved ones - tell them why you are grateful for their lives.
The words, the stories, the heart - they all come out into the center of the circle. I truly believe that no matter how forgone that person is, they can hear them. But it’s not just about the Goses, the dying person, it’s about the family. For those moments, they aren’t thinking about anything else but being there for their loved one. They are living in the moment, they are Living Present. But you don't have to wait until the last moments to live present with your families.
There’s something we learned from some of our good friends the Bilus. On Friday nights, their family goes around the table and states what they are thankful for. We do this everyday in our prayers, but it’s rare that we consciously do this as a family. It would be great if every morning began like this, but let’s be honest, standing in a circle before you leave to start the day and having a calm moment just isn’t in the cards for us as we are getting the kids ready for school and they are running late.
So we do it once a week on Friday night - what are you thankful for? And you listen. You don’t have to think about what you are going to say, you have time, it’s shabbat dinner, there’s no where else to go, no other experience to have. And do you know what always comes up - at least one of us says - I’m thankful...for you.
And you don’t have to have a family to do this - all you need is someone else. That’s what this community is here for - to help you find that someone else.
So, can you do something for me? Will you incorporate this act at least once on Shabbat? Will you live present for at least 15 minutes out of the week and tell someone else what you are grateful for? And, can you do me one favor, can you live present so you can truly listen to what they say - can you listen to hear what they are grateful for?
On Rosh Hashanah, I asked you all to answer a question, when do you feel most alive? Of course, it's a matter of opinion, and I heard many different answers. But for me, the moments we feel most alive are after we survive something – a hurricane, cancer, a car accident...and also, on Yom Kippur – and it's in those moments afterward that God asks us to #LivePresent – for ourselves, for our families, but most of all, for God. Why else would God put us here for?
I Am Nothing Without Them©
Rabbi David Baum, Yom Kippur 5777/2016
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
Do you know that last year marked the largest number of pictures ever taken? 1 trillion. We are fond of saying, a picture is worth a thousand words, but some pictures say more than others. For example, the pictures taken at the Rio Olympics this summer. Who can forget that picture of the fastest man alive, Usain Bolt, looking to his sides to see his opponents, as if he was strolling, on his way to win another gold medal. Or the picture of the two marathon runners, Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino, picking each other up after they knocked into each other.Michael Phelps had a couple of iconic pictures. Do you remember when he was taunted by a shadow boxing South African swimmer Chad le Clo during a warm up? Phelps stared at him the entire time with an intense look, and went on to defeat him and everyone else in that race. Of course, there was the picture of Phelps kissing his gold medal with a tear in his eye, this likely being his final Olympics ever, capping off the greatest Olympic career in history.
But in my humble opinion, the most significant picture taken in these summer Olympics was of Fabien Gilot. I’m sure very few of you have ever heard his name. Fabien Gilot is an Olympic swimmer for the French team and he won the Gold Medal for the Freestyle Relay. But he didn't become famous for winning the gold. As Gilot raised his arm out of the pool as he completed the race, a picture was taken: it was of a tattoo on his arm of the following words in Hebrew: “Ani Klum Biladeihem,” which translates in English as “I am nothing without them.”
Here is the interesting thing about this story – Gilot is not Jewish, he’s not Israeli either, and to be honest, I don't think he knows any Hebrew except for those three words. So you might be asking, why would he get a tattoo in Hebrew and who are the ‘them’ that Gilot is nothing without? The person he could not be anything without was named Max Goldschmidt. He was not Gilot’s biological grandfather, but he married Gilot’s grandmother and played the grandfather role in his life. Max was a Jew, a survivor of Auschwitz. His stories of survival and his love of his adopted grandson fueled Gilot to become the fierce competitor that he was. He got the tattoo in the language of Max’s ancestors while his grandfather was alive.
The question is, why did Gilot choose to honor his Jewish grandfather with a tattoo? Perhaps it was because he wanted a permanent reminder – something to make time stand still – like a photograph. But we know tattoos do not do this – and please, if there are any children out there – do not get a tattoo. There are better ways to make sure that we can remember the people who we are nothing without – better ways to make time standstill.
In Judaism, we make time stand still through holy moments and we store them as memories. Yom Kippur is a day when time stands still – it's as if we are living in a still photograph. Today, memory is not about the past, its about the present and the future – today, we re-enter memories of the past and live in them. Memory is a big part of Yom Kippur. If Yom Kippur is the Shabbats of all Shabbats, then the Yizkor on Yom Kippur is the Yizkor of all Yizkors. Not only do we pray for our individual family members whom we have lost, but we also collectively pray for our martyrs during the Ella Azkarah service in Musaf – literally, those we remember. But we must never forget this – we can still ‘remember’ those who we are nothing without while they are still alive.
So today, on this Yom Kippur morning, I’d like to share my answer of who I would be nothing without, someone who is, thank God, still alive – my grandfather, my Zayde and then, I’d like to share the story of two people whom we as a people would be nothing without – two Zaydes we lost this year – two men that we would be nothing without – and I want tell you about the picture of their lives.
On Facebook, as we approach the secular New Year, they have a feature which shows you the pictures that received the most ‘likes’ for the year. I already know which picture that will be for me. As many of you know, I have a very special relationship with my grandfather Frank. We were both born on the same day, August 25th, although he was born just a couple of years before me. But our connection doesn’t stop there. It seems with each passing birthday, and as I lose more hair, more and more people tell me: you look just like your grandfather. Honestly, I had no idea what they were talking about, until a couple of months ago, I was visiting him at home and I found a picture of my grandfather giving the priestly blessing to my uncle at his bar mitzvah. He was a couple of years older than me at that point, but we looked exactly the same. It was uncanny. I took a picture of that picture, and a picture I had of me giving the Birkhat Cohanim to a bat mitzvah – and they looked almost identical. I posted the picture on Facebook – those who didn’t know my grandfather asked why I put two pictures of myself up – they couldn’t tell the difference. It seemed the only thing that was different about our faces were our eyes – his are sky blue...mine are forest green. I'll come back to that later.
But there's more to our birthday and appearance as to why I am nothing without him.
As many of you already know, my grandfather is a Holocaust survivor. During those years, which must have seemed like an eternity, he fought every day to survive. Without his strength, and the strength of all of my grandparents who were also survivors, I would literally be nothing today. Not only did they survive, but they rebuilt their lives – started new families, and built strong Jewish homes. They taught me what it means to be a Jew, and a human being.
Ani Klum Biladeihem - I am nothing without my grandparents.
But my question is, who is my grandfather nothing without? I found that answer out this year.
During our daughter’s baby naming, I asked our inner circle of family members to offer our daughter Layla a blessing. What do you hope for her? What words do you want to say on her behalf to God? Everyone had beautiful things to say – it was quite moving; and then, my 92 year old grandfather held my daughter. What blessing would he bestow upon her, what would he ask God for on her behalf? And here’s what he said as he locked eyes with her: “You are my 11th great-grandchild.” He choked up and could not say a thing after that – a couple of weeks later, we took a picture of him holding his 10th great-grandchild Max, our nephew who is just a month older than Layla, and our his 11th great-granddaughter, Layla. The smile on his face is simply divine – his sky blue eyes lit up the picture.
For my grandfather, life is no longer about the past – it is about the future. There comes a point when we experience a shift – when we start realizing that we are nothing without our descendants.
We are nothing without our future, the next Jews who will come after us. While we must look to the past for gratitude and strength, we must also look to the future and say – I am nothing without them.
This year, we lost two Zeydes, Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres. They were more than men – they represented the past to us. Elie Wiesel was the voice of the Holocaust survivor. His books gave an eloquent voice to those who could not speak about the horrors of their experience. The day after Shimon Peres passed away, PM Netanyahu sent the following tweet: “Today is the first day where Israel will not have Shimon Peres. Shimon Peres was the last remaining voice of the founders of the Modern State of Israel. Wiesel was our modern day Moses, the unrelenting prophet. Peres was our Aaron, the Rodef Shalom, the pursuer of peace. And they played these roles not just for the past, but for the future. Moses and Aaron were the Zeydes to their people – the last remaining of their generation.
To us, Moses and Aaron, Wiesel and Peres, seemed to live for the past, but nothing can be farther from the truth. All four of them lived for the future.
When I think of Wiesel, I am taken back to a specific picture – the famous picture of him in the barack of Buchenwald, emaciated at 16 years old. For many of us, Wiesel was immortalized by that picture, just as the tattoo on his arm that he had – A-7713.
Every picture of Wiesel, even of him smiling, revealed a man with intensity, and dare I say, a tortured soul. He worked tirelessly to speak truth to power. He was never silent – like Moses – he challenged everyone. Who can forget when he scolded the President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan, who was planning on visiting a German military cemetery in Bitburg: “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.” He even challenged God famously saying, “I rarely speak about God. To God yes. I protest against Him. I shout at Him.” He devoted his life to fighting anti-Semitism and the perpetuation of human rights. He swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endured suffering and humiliation. He said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
He spoke those words in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He began his words speaking as his teenage self, a boy who discovered the kingdom of the night – and then, he said, that boy is turning to me: "Tell me," he asks. "What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?"
As much as his life was devoted to the destroyed past, it was even more devoted to the future.
With that in mind, if Wiesel were here, I think he'd want us to remember him by a different photograph: It is a picture of him laying in bed with his young son Elisha, but he's not looking down at him, he's looking up at him. In the article, Elisha talks about the few promises his father made of him for after he passes – and I want to share one of them with you: Say Kaddish for me everyday after I die.
The Kaddish didn’t start as a prayer for the dead, it was a short summary of our entire tradition.
God’s name should be great, and how do we make God's name great? Through Tikkun Olam, perfecting the world...and when it’s perfected, when it is full of life, and those lives are supported with all of their dignity, then our job will be complete. But, the previous generation could never complete the mission, so the next generation took on that mission, and that is why we say these words.
Kaddish is an affirmation of life, the life of your loved one, the life of our people! And that is why Elie Wiesel asked his son Elisha to say the Kaddish – because he knew that he was nothing without them – without his child and that next generation.
We are nothing without him, our prophet who shook us to the core...but he is nothing without us taking on his legacy; a legacy dedicated to human rights and the perpetuation of the Jewish people.
And we lost another Zeyde this year – a man just as important, and yet, so different than Wiesel, not the prophet, but the priest.
There is a blessing we thank God for in the morning – for giving sight to the blind – Pokeach Ivrim. The second Zayde we lost this year, Shimon Peres, taught us how we must also open our eyes to see the possibilities of the future.
We think of Peres as being a pursuer of peace, just like we think of Aaron the high priest, but both were warriors in their early days. Aaron was the mouth piece against Pharoah, and he supported Moses through battling Amalek.
Peres was the person who oversaw the development of Israel's nuclear program, purchasing the first uranium from France, and he was the defense minister when Israel made the daring raid on Entebbe.
Peres was not always a dove. He liked to say, "I believe that in foreign policy, it is better to talk like a lion in a sheep’s skin rather than a sheep in a lion’s mane." Like Aaron the high priest, Peres was almost always impeccably dressed – even when most Israeli leaders dressed down – he would be seen in a suit, and even a tie. Like Aaron, he and Yitzhak Rabin chased after peace with the Palestinians.
He famously said: "For peace, one must remember: As a bird cannot fly with one wing, as a man cannot applaud with one hand, so a country cannot make peace just with one side, with itself. For peace, we need the two of us."
Alas, he never saw peace between Israelis and Palestinians in his lifetime. But he never gave up.
When he retired as president of Israel, he famously said, “I am leaving the office but am not leaving the battle for peace.”
The pictures I most admire of Peres are not his pictures as a young man with David Ben Gurion or Yitzhak Rabin. There is one picture that I think of that signifies what Peres was all about – but it wasn't a picture, it was a video of Peres sky-diving in his 80's (don't worry, I'm pretty sure it was a stunt double):
Upon his retirement as president of Israel, his granddaughter made a video in his honor. It a video of Peres interviewing for jobs. Peres famously said that he could never stop working.
In the final scene, he is skydiving with a young Israeli man who could have been his grandson. As they are falling, the man pulls his parachute and he says to him, you're not falling, you are rising! As if to say, get back to work! They land in an empty desert, and he says to the young man, Kadima, forward, there's a lot of work to do! The man looks at him and says, “but there's nothing here.” And Peres says, “When there's nothing, anything is possible.”
Peres could see things that others just could not see.
Peres performed one final act of loving kindness in his death: he donated his corneas to someone who cannot see, he literally opened the eyes of someone who was blind. After his death, a poet named Sharon Shinar penned the following poem titled someone will get your eyes:
Someone will get your eyes,
The eyes that saw a nation, before the nation succeeded in seeing itself,
The eyes that saw Ben Gurion stand on his head,
And Golda, in the seat of the Prime Minister.
Someone will get your eyes,
The eyes that saw wars, terror and bereavement
And saw Independence and a flag, with a blue Star of David
Eyes that saw a Prime Minister assassinated
But also saw peace treaties
Eyes that under no circumstances
ever agreed to see the End.
Someone will get your eyes,
Eyes that saw innovation, even before the word had an entry in the dictionary
Eyes that saw losses but refused to see defeat
Eyes that saw worlds, and saw leaders
Eyes that taught, each day anew, to have faith.
Someone will get your eyes
And how symbolic is it that you specifically chose to leave them behind
Eyes that saw so much of everything, and insisted that,
no matter how dark things looked in the tunnel of the moment,
there was always at least a little point of light at the end.
Someone, will get your eyes,
And that is so much more than everything else
For history always remains behind
But if we succeed in looking forward, like your eyes
Then perhaps, even for just a moment, we will succeed in believing in all of this
Shimon Peres never stopped looking to the future. He was often asked: ‘What is the greatest achievement you have reached in your lifetime or that you will reach in the future?’ His reply: “There was a great painter named Mordecai Ardon, who was asked which picture was the most beautiful he had ever painted. Ardon replied, ‘The picture I will paint tomorrow.’ That is also my answer.”
We are nothing without them, without our Zeyde's – and they are nothing without us – without their grandchildren, their future.
I mentioned at the beginning of this talk that when my grandfather was my age, we looked exactly alike, except for one thing: our eyes. I have green eyes, and he has blue eyes. None of his children or grandchildren have his eyes – until my son Harrison was born, and his 11th great-grandchild, Layla who both have blue eyes. Whenever Harrison hugs his Zeyde, he says, “Grandpa Frank, I have your eyes.” I will always cherish those pictures of my Zeyde with his great-grandchildren and their sky blue eyes.
The eyes of someone who despite suffering so much, never stopped looking toward the future – like all of our Zeydes.
You know what Grandparents have in common with their grandchildren? A common enemy. But they also share another bond – they are nothing without each other.
My blessing for us all is that we recognize the people whom we are nothing without – that we see their pictures – that we take advantage of them when we have them in our lives. My blessing for us is that is that we live for them not only when they are alive, but also, when they are no longer here. My blessing for us is that we too see our grandchildren, and look at them the way our Zeydes and Bubbes look at us – as the photographers and painters of the pictures of tomorrow.